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SEO Without Borders: A Guide to International SEO


1. Domain Name
2. Structure
2.1 Domain Directories
2.2 Separate ccTLDs
2.3 Separate Subdomains
3. Translation
3.1 Professional Translation
3.2 Google Translate
4. Markup
5. Keyword Research
6. Onpage
7. Link Building
8. Common Mistakes

This guide is for those who want to market internationally through multiple country-specific search engines. From basic SEO best practices to more technical situations, we will cover every step of the process.

No more sitting around wondering why you’re not popping up in; this content is written to be simple to understand and most importantly – actionable!

1. Domain name

It all starts here at the domain name. There are two types, country-specific top-level domain names (ccTLDs) and generic top-level domain names (gTLDs). A country-specific name might be something like, while a generic alternative would be (.org, .info, .biz and so on).

If you’re creating a multinational/multi-lingual site then it’s recommended that you go after a generic (gTLD) domain. There are a few exceptional cases where multiple separate country-specific (ccTLD) domains are a better choice, but this will all become clear shortly.

2. Structure

This has been covered extensively across many SEO forums and blogs. By structure I’m referring to how we set up our strategy with URLs; this part of the process is so crucial to how you move forward and can be an enormous pain to change further down the line. Consider these options carefully!

2.1 Domain Directories (Recommended)

In this instance, all languages would reside on one generic (gTLD) domain, with each language being separated into a folder. Taking the example:

Or going further, you can split languages up into country codes, for example:


One domain means one SEO campaign; building authority to the /en/ directory will have a positive, indirect impact on /fr/ and /de/.


One domain also means one server location; in this instance you would not be able to host the /de/ folder in Germany and the /fr/ folder in France which may impact load speeds – and in most cases this won’t be noticeable.

2.2 Separate ccTLDs

Another common method of targeting multiple languages is to go through entirely separate domain names. For the same countries as above, this would simply be:

For the United States a .us name can be used, but these ccTLDs are reserved for US citizens and therefore not always appropriate. In this instance, it’s recommended that you register a .com and then use Webmaster Tools to target users in the United States.


  • Clear distinction between locations, Google will not get confused as to which site to rank in which search engine.
  • Ability to locate servers in the local region allowing for faster load speeds.
  • Recognisable in the SERPs and trusted amongst local search users.


  • Authority does not pass between domains without the use of links (and the impact of this is slight); SEO efforts are therefore increased greatly for every new ccTLD used. This approach is often only appropriate for MNCs with very large SEO budgets.

2.3 Separate Subdomains

One final option for international websites is a multiple-subdomain approach. Using the same gTLD, we can have multiple subdomains to target different users:


  • None


  • Authority does not flow (to any significant level) between subdomains
  • There are no pros.

3. Translation

Now that you’ve got your structure in place, you’ll need to populate your site with multi-lingual content. It probably sounds obvious, but while some sites may use English across all their geographic pages/domains, translating this content into the local language is key to ranking in the respective search engine.

Going about getting a page translated can be really difficult or really hard, we’ll explain the two here.

3.1 Professional Translation

In the absolute best-case scenario you have a few multi-linguists inhouse that could run through every page on a website and churn out well written translations. The reality is often very different, and outsourcing your content to be translated is often necessary. If you do find yourself needing to outsource, I would recommend starting with and looking for translators there; besides that you’ll have various forums packed full of freelancers ready to begin translating.

Professional translations start around the 1 cent per word mark, ($5 for a 500 word article); so while relatively low cost, a 200 page site requiring 3 new languages would still set you back around $3,000.

3.2 Google Translate

Google translate will allow you to switch content between 65 different languages; it’s free and incredibly simple to use – sound too good to be true? Sort of, there’s a lot of debate in search regarding free translation services and their effectiveness in organic rankings. Grammar and spelling errors certainly flag up in Google’s algorithm; poorly written content will hold back its ability to rank and automated translation tools will almost always throw up issues ranging from subtle to full blown garbage (and without a translator who’s able to check?!).

So Google translate isn’t ideal, but given the cost of professional translation and varying budgets, I recommend viewing the translation process as this:

  • Depending on your budget, allocate as much as you can to professional translation on your most important landing pages. If you can afford to get your entire site translated, go for it.
  • When your budget runs out, switch to Google Translate and go through all the other pages across your website.
  • Set out a long term strategy to dedicate a certain amount of revenue or further investment into translating the rest of your website.

4. Markup

Language markup is a string to any technical SEO’s bow. It’s not widely used and most webmasters are totally unaware of it; this markup is written in HTML and it tells Google and other search engines what language a page is written in, and where other languages of the same page reside. Google is often smart enough to interpret a website’s multi-lingual content correctly, but spelling out what’s what and showing them the exact URLs of language variations can only be a good thing.

hreflang And Avoiding Duplicate Content

First of all, what is hreflang and why that silly name?

‘hreflang’ is an attribute that is used inside a link element (examples below). These link elements go in the section of a page, and like other link elements (canonicals, favicons etc) they are hidden from users and speak only to robots! It’s called ‘hreflang’ because in HTML, ‘href’ stands for ‘hypertext reference’ and is used to code all HTML links; and ‘lang’, quite clearly, is short for language. So the combination simply means a linked reference to a language…

(That definitely sounded clearer in my head.)

On any page that has a language variation, the hreflang link element should be used.

Let’s take a single page as an example:

You’ve decided to divide your multilingual content up into three languages, German, French and English by using a directory structure (good choice!). Your three homepages are now:

Looked at in isolation, these are just three separate URLs, and they aren’t automatically assumed to target different locations in the world. There are various signals that tell Google that these pages are translations of another, but in this instance, we’re only interested in the markup signal. On all three of these pages, you will need to include the following three link elements in the header:


As these links all reference URLs on the same domain, I’ve just written the ‘href’ values as relative URLs. If they were on another domain or subdomain, you would need to specify them.

For hreflang mark up to work, each page has to point to all variations of itself including itself. If you had other language variations then you would simply add in a new link element.

Should I use a canonical link element as well?

Canonical link elements are used to clear up duplicate content. A canonical URL says to Google, ‘I know this page is duplicate, but this is where I want you to attribute the credit’. However, hreflang will do that job for you, and so the simultaneous use of a canonical link element is not advised (it also screws around with meta descriptions as these guys from Distilled will show you).

Using hreflang will help you to avoid any duplicate content issues; without using it, you risk your content losing value and struggling to pull traffic. Avoid changing the meaning of your content from one language to another – aim to keep translations semantically identical.

Full documentation about hreflang can be found on

5. Keyword Research

With your structure in place, it’s now time to look at possible keywords for a range of localised search terms. Frustratingly, a lot of searches made in foreign countries, especially European, will actually be split up between the language of that country and English.

Google’s Keyword Tool is a free and effective way of finding out what people are searching for between countries. Let’s look at an example:

In this search, we’re looking for the financial trading term ‘contract for difference’, or in German, ‘differenzkontrakt. The monthly search numbers are pretty small (not shown), but in this instance there are more searches for the English variation than there are for the German one.

While your content should always be in the language of that particular country, mentions of keywords can be switched out for the English variation in situations like this. Of course this only works here because ‘contract for difference’ is a noun, whereas you wouldn’t want to begin interrupting German sentences avec random French phrases.

6. Onpage SEO

While we recommend that your translated content stays pretty much identical (in terms of meaning) across the board, certain on-page elements (such as title elements) will need changing in order to match your new keyword research.

Every on-page SEO principle should be applied across languages; canonicalisation, headers, content and everything else that you’re used to still needs to be considered; plus the all important user intent considerations. But here are a few things that you might not have thought about:

Sectioning Each Language:

Don’t, for example, overlap English and German or French and German pages. If a user lands on then make sure that all navigation and internal links point to other pages within the /de/ directory. Not only will your user not risk confusion (and Google will see this), but you reinforce your focus on that particular language – you’re showing Google that this page is in German, and look, so is everything else here, so please rank me in your .de engine!

Of course, you will want to allow the user to switch between languages; a subtle link at the top of the page will do just fine.

Alt Attributes and Imagery

If you really want to get your translated pages spot on then don’t forget to your alt attributes. Translating alt attributes is a small detail, but one that will certainly add to the overall SEO benefit when ranking across borders. I would even suggest going as far as re-uploading all imagery with their file names changed to match the respective language. Easily missed, but details like this will give you an edge over the majority of your competition.


Possibly obvious to some, but URLs are just another on-page factor that we’re all very familiar with in single-language SEO, but unfamiliar when it comes to international rankings. Translated URLs get overlooked all too often; ensure that your URLs contain the spoken language of that section and optimise them appropriately.

As with English URLs, it’s recommended that you avoid over-optimising these and keeping them short and clean from lengthy key phrases. Panda speaks dozens of languages, not just English!

Address Details

If you actually operate at a physical location in one of the countries that you’re targeting, then include your office details either on the landing pages or at least on your contact page. Mark them up with microdata ( and of course, have a Google+ Local account for that address.

Whether you have a physical location or not, you should definitely consider setting up, for example, a German Facebook page, Twitter account, including German information on your LinkedIn company profile and going as far as having your head office cited on German business directories. Then link to these new German social profiles from your German URLs!

Link building requires exactly the same practice that you’re used to. Ranking for a new geographical area only requires a slight change of focus.

Build Links From Relevant ccTLDs

If you’re trying to rank a French page on your site, then attempt to acquire .fr links for example. There are few better signals that your content deserves a French ranking than from a French domain.

However don’t begin to think about rejecting links from other ccTLDs or gTLDs in absolute favour of a totally relevant domain extension. Great links are still great links, just do your best, in this situation, to gear your link profile slightly more towards .fr’s.

Build Links From Relevant Languages

This is more relevant when acquiring links from gTLDs. Where possible, find .com’s, .net’s etc that are written in the appropriate language, it’s likely that these sites have been categorised by Google as German or French for instance. This again, will up the off-page relevance of your website towards any given country; but as with finding links from ccTLDs, don’t make this a criteria for each and every one.

Anchor Text Distribution

International SEO actually gives you a nice little opportunity for distributing your anchor texts more broadly but with the same focus. Consider mixing the language of your anchor texts between local and English with exact, partial and generic all being thrown in. You’ve just doubled the number of variations that you can use!

Common Mistakes of International SEO:

  • JavaScript language translation

It’s not uncommon for webmasters to go down the JavaScript route simply because it’s easy. There are a bunch of plugins floating around that will let you translate content ‘inline’; this type of translation has minimal bearing on your SEO efforts.

Keep your international content on separate URLs and translated as HTML text.

  • Splash pages

Splash pages are landing pages (often the homepage) that offer a list of options, in this case languages, for a user to click through to. They create an unnecessary step for the user (they should be landing directly on the correct page), and they weaken your ability to rank.

On occasion, a splash page might make sense, but a general rule of thumb is to avoid them entirely.

  • Geo-redirections

Your server doesn’t always know best; a user might arrive at your page from a German I.P, but is looking for English content, forcing a redirect to the German section will drop your engagement. Using an unobtrusive banner to suggest that they might prefer to view the German content of a site is a far better way to go. This works well for a structure that uses different domains (,,, however when using directories on the same domain, it’s often helpful to prompt users through a one off geo-redirect but not forcing the matter!

And if you’ve done your international SEO correctly, you’ll find your users (at least from search), landing on the correct language without any trouble at all anyway.

Nick Pateman Operations Director at Inbound

Nick is an SEO turned inbound marketer and started out in 2004 by building a bunch of websites with pocket ...

SEO Without Borders: A Guide to International SEO

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